No Mental Health Cops – Letter to Victoria City Council

 

Subject: Refuse the police budget increase – Defund the police to build homes and community controlled social programs 

To: Victoria City Council and Police Board

From: Alliance Against Displacement

February 11, 2016

We are writing this letter to support a motion that will be made at the February 11 Council meeting to remove the police request for $250,000 for additional officers in the Mental Health Response Team. Please consider these comments our support for the motion to remove the funding from the City budget.

Although our collective is not based in Victoria, we are proud to stand with low-income communities, street populations, and grassroots anti-poverty activists in the Victoria area. Alliance Against Displacement is a British Columbia-wide effort to unite communities in struggle against similar economic and policing forces of displacement. We are writing to you from Vancouver because the collective initiating this effort is founded in this city, the base of west coast displacement forces.

Since homelessness began to grow in the 1990s, there have been three stages of response from governments in British Columbia.

First, local governments passed laws that criminalized low-income people for being and living in public. The BC “safe streets act” and many municipalities’ anti-camping bylaws are examples. Criminalization failed to eliminate poor peoples’ presence in public spaces because of the ever-increasing number of homeless and low-income people in cities.

Second, Vancouver and BC created health-based harm reduction systems that aimed to stop the epidemic of HIV/AIDS and Hep C transmission and overdose deaths. These systems spawned social policies and institutional regulations that managed and controlled low-income peoples’ lives. Their sexualities were closely regulated through the street-level sex trade, their homes with low-barrier shelters and semi-institutional supportive housing, and their substance use with broad ranging, integrated, and encapsulating drug and alcohol harm reduction, treatment, and health programs.

Third, governments in BC are now in the process of collapsing health and policing into a unified system targeting the lives of working-class, low-income and off-reserve Indigenous people. Shelters and so-called “supportive” housing are presented as safe and healthy places for low-income residents, but they are also sites of surveillance that are porous to police intervention. Even bylaws that permit camping in public parks overnight as a “right to health” measure are used to justify criminalization and removal during the day.

What all three of these approaches have in common is that they police poverty and they deny the ability of low-income people to determine their own lives. They all use our basic needs against us and hold us captive in our poverty. They all make abandoning our individual rights and liberty a condition of getting the most basic of living supports to survive in a capitalist and colonial system that has robbed us our ability to survive as communities.

Most cynical are those practices that directly pair police officers with health care workers. Policing is a system of violence against working-class, low-income and Indigenous people. The police system does not protect those most vulnerable to individual bodily violence. People most vulnerable to violence do not trust police because they are more likely to be arrested than supported by the criminal court system, an experience that often affects their mental health by adding traumatic experiences. This approach fails to address structures of oppression and violence that low-income people face, such as colonialism and the racist treatment of Indigenous people, sex and gender-based violence, economic injustice, the damage caused by the war on drugs, lack of housing, and the accelerating criminalization and containment of low-income people.

The institutional mental health care system already targets and pathologizes working-class, low-income and Indigenous people as problems for society. As it has grown and adapted over the last decade to deal with spreading poverty and homelessness, this health-services system has deepened and affirmed the myth that people are poor because there is something wrong with them. By adding armed police officers to these regulatory health-services, the system is literally arming itself against these individual problems.

We call on Victoria City Council to say no to an increased police budget to merge further with health services, or for any other reason. We call on Victoria City Council to defund the police department and redistribute these funds to low-income people. Put the money directly in the hands of low-income people. Build housing and fund services for low-income people, run by low-income people.

Sincerely,

Alliance Against Displacement collective

Unceded territories of the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, Squamish, Kwikwetlem, and Kwantlen nations